Battle-weary knight Marc de Sens has never encountered a woman like Sunniva of Wereford: beautiful, brilliant, and miles above the curs who call themselves her kin. Alas, she is promised to another and Marc's obligation is to his three orphaned nieces. But when Sunniva's circumstances suddenly change, Marc learns the truth about her 'betrothal'...***
A rough-hewn knight so gentle with children intrigues Sunniva, who never knew a kind word or caring touch from any man until Marc rescued her from the grimmest of fates. When her loutish father and brothers are killed, Sunniva is finally free, but her troubles are far from over. Although Marc has appointed himself her protector, he has a dark secret--as well as an uncanny ability to disarm her completely.
This excerpt is based on true events, when the Norman Duke William was crowned King of England in Westminister Abbey on Christmas Day, 1066. The heroine Sunniva has come to the coronation with the hero, Marc.
So intent was she on her prayers that she paid little heed to what was happening further inside the church. Eventually, through the puffs of incense and the tense standing knots of armed, fidgeting men she noticed a muscular, clean-shaven, middle-aged man standing close to the high altar. Beside him were the bishops in their heavy, embroidered robes--she was too anxious to take notice of the needlework on their clothes. Beside them were a few monks, singing gamely into the not-quite-silence, and on either side of the nave, the Saxon lords and William's Normans.
They made a contrast, Sunniva thought. The Normans, clean-shaven and crop-haired, some sweating in chain mail. The English, long-haired, with full beards or moustaches, and short riding cloaks, many stained by travel. To a man they stared at the altar, not quite looking at the king--for that was certainly who it was.
William was speaking, repeating something, prompted by an elderly cleric.
"That is Aldred, Archbishop of York," Marc said in her ear. "I have it on good authority that he has anointed William and--look!"
Sunniva swung her head and saw the lean, hawk-featured Aldred place a gold diadem upon the stocky William's balding head. The Normans, standing on the right side of the nave, began to cheer, the sound lost in the great church. A few of the English, standing on the left side of the nave, joined in, and Sunniva thought that she heard the accents of her own homeland, coming from the lips of a tall, elderly Englishman who reminded her of someone... She felt homesick for an instant, missing her mother, and then the moment was gone.
Now the archbishop of York stood back and asked the English if William was acceptable as King. A French bishop, whom Marc did not recognize, asked the same question to the French-speaking Normans.
Both sides agreed and their acclamations grew louder, each side seeming determined to outdo the other. With every shout, those waiting outside the abbey joined in until suddenly one of the guards burst back into the church, yelling something in French that spurred the whole company, Normans and English, into an unseemly stampede for the door.
Frozen into a shocked stillness as the ominous smell of burning gushed into the church and she heard screaming outside, she was conscious of being roughly bundled behind Marc. "Keep your back always to the pillar!" he hissed, tugging a monk behind him and drawing his sword to defend them all.
Outside the tumult increased. Sickened to hear the running panic, Sunniva realized that most of the congregation had fled, including the tall, bearded stranger who had put her in mind of her homeland. Like scurrying ants in a broken ant-hill, the clergy were hastening to complete the consecration of the king. William, paler than spun flax, seemed to be trembling. All this--on Christmas Day!
Sunniva closed her eyes and prayed for safety.